By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When Silas Stafford heard the complaint from the NBA star, well, sympathy wasn’t his reaction. How could it be? Sure, Stafford made the U.S. Olympic rowing team, but along the way he had to sleep under a pool table. In a building with no air conditioning.
For an entire summer. In the suffocating New Jersey humidity.
So, Stafford bristled when he heard Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat complain that the NBA players on USA’s Olympic basketball team weren’t getting paid.
“When I heard that,” said Stafford, 26, a Santa Rosa High School graduate, “I just about lost it.”
OK, sure, America’s basketball players will headline these Summer Olympics, just as they have since the Dream Team in 1992. Stafford gets that. In comparison, his sport is a footnote. OK, fine. But what tweaks Stafford is the ego, the arrogance, the entitlement contained in that complaint. Stafford comes from a different place. Sacrifice and suffering are his teammates.
“You don’t see any superstars in rowing because there can’t be,” Stafford said by phone from New Jersey before he left for London on July 16. “If someone wants to stand out and row harder, the boat slows down.”
Sacrifice, oh, how Stafford could school Wade on sacrifice. For the last five years Stafford, a 2008 Stanford graduate in geology, has taken every breath, strained every muscle to become an Olympic rower. To do that in a low-visibility, under-funded sport, Stafford has slept on couches, moved five times and spent the summer of 2010 crashing under that pool table inside a Catholic Church in Princeton, N.J.
“A priest was sympathetic to rowers,” said Stafford, who graduated from Cambridge in 2011 with a master’s degree in geology. “The air (inside the church) was brutal.”
In fact, if one is looking for the poster boy to display the quintessential Olympic athlete, one possessed of strong mind and body, Stafford is the working definition. Doug Courtemarche, Stafford’s track coach at Santa Rosa High, saw it years ago.
“Silas never complained,” Courtemarche said.
“He was one of those rare athletes that got it, who understood the team function as well as what was needed physically to succeed. Even at that age, Silas had the kind of maturity you would like to see in all athletes.”
Stafford was a 4:26 miler at Santa Rosa, so he knew success in high school. But when he went to UCLA, a 4:26 miler finds too many like him. His sister, Katie, a UC Berkeley student, told her brother he should try rowing. She had gotten to know a few rowers at Cal and said his body type — a long and lean 6-foot-4, 200 pounds — was a rower’s prototype.
Stafford switched to rowing, transferred to Stanford. In the summer of his junior year, he arrived at a moment that would change his life forever and send him to London. He didn’t know it at the time. People rarely do, seldom aware of a defining impact, so involved are they. In 2007 Stafford was involved in being depressed and disillusioned.
“Our (8-man) boat had just lost the Pac-10 championship by eight seconds,” he said.
That would be like losing, 10-0, in soccer.
Stanford was scheduled to compete three weeks later in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships in New Jersey.
Stafford wanted no part of it.
“We had just been crushed in the Pac-10 championships and I didn’t see the point of going back East to get crushed again,” said Stafford, referring to most of the elite collegiate teams coming from Ivy League schools. “When you are a varsity athlete, you have a completely different college experience than the usual student. I was tired all the time — rowing is the most physically demanding of all sports, in my opinion. I was training all the time. I was tired of the sacrifice with nothing coming out of it. So I said ‘screw it, I’m done with rowing.’ I quit but I hadn’t told the coach yet.”
Stafford revealed his decision to a close friend, fellow Stanford rower Kevin Baum, who spent the next couple of hours talking Stafford out of his decision. The reason he changed his mind would greatly please and not surprise Courtemarche.
“Kevin said I couldn’t bail on the seniors,” Stafford said. “‘You owe it to us,’ Kevin said. “And he was right. So I agreed to compete, but I knew this was going to be my last race.”
At this point, Stafford needed to explain what sacrifice and suffering means to a rower.
“Suffering is at the center of the sport,” he said.
“You train twice a day, every day, all year. You play tricks on yourself. You’d say to yourself you just want to do the first stroke perfect. And then you want to do the next two strokes perfect. And then you want to do the next 10 strokes perfect. And you just keep doing that.”
Sounds brutally repetitious and it is.
There are no home runs in rowing, Stafford said. No dunking a basketball, catching a touchdown pass, no heading a soccer goal. There are no singular, spectacular, stand-alone moments in rowing that provide an energy boost. A rowers’ goal is to accomplish the unseen and the unspectacular — to shave seconds. To get faster by seconds is the intent. To work that hard, to be so faceless while doing it, and then to get smoked, it’s easy to see why Stafford wanted to quit.
So, in what he thought was going to be his last race as a rower, the Stanford crew finished second in the IRA championships. The silver medal won by a West Coast team attracted attention. Even though schools like Cal and Washington have done well in rowing, it was still an East Coast-heavy sport. On the basis of that finish, Stafford was invited to compete for a berth on the Under-23 USA National team.
“I did well in the tryout, made the team and things went from there,” Stafford said.
Even though he earned two degrees from prestigious institutions, Stafford couldn’t hold a steady job. A coach would call him on a Monday and tell him to fly to a city for a competition. It happened so often, Stafford felt like a vagabond. All in the name of rowing, all in the name of success, as Stafford became a strong candidate for the 2012 USA Olympic team.
Until he broke a rib this March.
“When you transfer force from your legs to your arms,” Stafford said, “a stress fracture is a very common injury for rowers.”
Not that the injury sat well with Stafford. He was on track to make the USA team and now this. Stafford rested for six weeks. A six-week rest is not what an athlete does to make an Olympic team. USA’s eight-man boat was selected, then the four-man. All that was left was the two-man. Tom Peszek and Stafford qualified on June14.
The scream Stafford released as their boat crossed the finish line was primal, a scream that, had it been uttered in a public park, would have resulted in a trip to a psychiatric facility. But this was Silas Stafford, who in just five years went from quitting the sport to making the U.S. Olympic team.
“I am an Olympian,” said Stafford, pausing to absorb the power of that word. “It does have a nice ring to it.”
And it’s OK, he said, if he doesn’t get paid. After all, Stafford didn’t do all that suffering for the money. He did it for the honor.
For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.